You don't have to be Leona Helmsley to want the best for your pet after you die. She'd left her dog Trouble $12 million when she passed away in 2007. A judge cut the award to $2 million and awarded some of the money to her grandchildren, but the Maltese still lived a life of luxury until his death in December. The dog's passing was just announced this month by the Helmsley trust.
Pet estate planning has grown since Helmsley's will made headlines. Today there are retirement homes for pets all across the country, and at least 45 states allow for pet trusts. A pet trust is an agreement that specifies how an owner wants a pet to be cared for, including details on who will be responsible for the animal and how the care will be paid for.
There are also attorneys who specialize in pet trusts, along with how-to books like "Who Will Care When You're Not There?" by tax attorneys Robert E. Kass and Elizabeth A. Carrie, "Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs" by law professor Gerry W. Beyer and estate planner Barry Seltzer, and "Petriarch: The Complete Guide to Financial and Legal Planning for a Pet's Continued Care" by animal attorney Rachel Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld wrote a pet protection agreement that is legally binding and can be found online for as little as $39. Companies like Trusted Pet Partners, founded by attorney Chris Jones of Santa Barbara, offer a simple online pet trust for $289. Other online resources include a free planning guide from the Humane Society of the United States called "Providing for Your Pet's Future Without You" at http://www.humanesociety.org/petsinwills.
Exactly how many pets are abandoned after their owners die is unknown, says Richard Avanzino, former president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but his best guess is 2 percent of surrendered animals, or 150,000 dogs and cats a year. A study from the late 1990s published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found 1 percent of dogs and 1.5 percent of cats coming into 12 animal shelters had been surrendered because of owner death.
In 1979, Avanzino went to court to prevent the euthanization of a dog whose owner, Mary Murphy, had committed suicide. Murphy left a will instructing that her 11-year-old dog Sido be euthanized.
"She didn't think anybody else could take care of her in the same pampered, loving way," said Avanzino.
A judge ruled disposal of personal property does not extend to killing a living creature.
"People from the grave cannot dictate the demise of their beloved pets just because they are not around to take care of them," Avanzino said.
Murphy's case prompted the San Francisco SPCA to set up one of the nation's first sanctuaries for pets who outlive their owners.
A few veterinary schools offer estate planning options like lifetime care for pets and placement in a home. The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, established by the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, offers a place for pets to live in addition to veterinary care. The Stevenson Center in College Station, Texas, currently houses 20 cats, 15 dogs and a llama, said Ellie Greenbaum, assistant to the director. They also have 377 animals from 20 states registered as potential residents. The fee for lifetime care is between $50,000 and $100,000 per pet, with any leftover funds donated to the center or the college.
But lifetime pet care arrangements don't always cost that much. Blue Bell Foundation For Cats in Laguna Beach, Calif., charges $6,500 for lifetime care for cats. The organization was founded by Bertha Gray Yergat, who wanted to ensure care after her death for the 200 cats she'd rescued. Yergat left about $1 million in assets, said Susan Hamil, chairwoman (and original member) of the foundation's board of directors. The organization now houses 50 cats.
One big problem is making sure trusts are written so that the pets and funds can be turned over quickly to the designated caregiver or facility. "The need when you pass away is immediate," Hamil said.
Most people will choose a friend or relative to take their pets.
"Much like an adoption, the goal is to make sure it will be a good match," said Kim Saunders, vice president of shelter outreach for Petfinder.com, an online pet adoption database. "You may love your best friend or family member, but they may not be a dog person." So some people designate an agency to find a new home for the pet.
Some owners leave money to whomever they're entrusting their pet to as a way of making sure the animal does not become a financial burden. Unfortunately, sometimes when large sums are involved, Avanzino said, "greed gets in the way."
In one case, Avanzino said, a cat was to be cared for by a maid and butler who were to get free room and board as long as the cat was alive. "The first time we saw the cat, we estimated it was 8 years old. Four years later, the cat was about 4 and the next time, the cat they brought in and said was the same cat, was estimated to be about 1 year old," he said.
In another case, the owner of a German shepherd left relatives the use of an entire estate as long as the dog lived. "They kept it alive almost two years on life support. The dog was totally incapable of moving," Avanzino said.